Confronting Domestic Terrorism Means Confronting White Nationalism

A man writes on a white sheet. There are candles.
People write messages on a sheet of paper during a gathering to commemorate the victims of an attack on two mosques in New Zealand at the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels on Friday. Laurie Dieffembacq/AFP/Getty Images

As a Muslim American, I was particularly struck by news of Friday’s harrowing attacks at New Zealand mosques. With at least 49 worshippers dead and the attack livestreamed on Facebook, this latest massacre epitomizes the surging white supremacist violence that has targeted racial and religious minorities here and abroad. Here in the United States, the October mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque, and the 2015 massacre targeting black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church all point to the gravity of the threat. Like other Muslim Americans, I not only grieve the loss of so many lives but fear that white nationalist violence will continue to imperil our own communities at home.

But as a scholar of national security law, I worry that political leaders in the United States will respond to the swell of white nationalist violence with the wrong solutions. Law enforcement officials must absolutely do more to counter white nationalist terrorism. But some proposed solutions, like calls for expanded federal terrorism charges, are both unnecessary and prone to abuse. Moreover, a focus on reforms of the penal code deflects attention from the political dynamics that have fueled and mobilized white nationalist movements here and elsewhere—especially the racist rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump and like-minded demagogues.

Even before recent U.S. incidents, studies from the Government Accountability Office, criminologists, and the New America Foundation documented a sizable death toll from far-right violent extremist incidents. And media investigations showed that new neo-Nazi groups like the Atomwaffen Division are engaging in paramilitary exercises and encouraging members to acquire military training to prepare for a race war. But even during the Obama administration, intelligence agencies often ignored right-wing threats for political reasons.

These domestic extremist threats are prompting new and deserved attention. Following the arrest last month of Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-declared white nationalist who stockpiled weapons for a potential terrorist attack, a former national security official and a U.S. attorney both advocated laws to create new federal terrorism charges to address such threats. While well-intentioned, these proposals misfire for several reasons.

First, law enforcement officials do not need new terrorism charges to counter domestic extremists. Prosecutors already have hundreds of federal criminal charges at their disposal, which they have used to prosecute Charleston shooter Dylann Roof; Charlottesville, Virginia, assailant James Alex Fields; and Hasson. In addition, prosecutors already use Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges to seize assets of domestic terrorist groups and increase penalties against their members. And the FBI can already conduct far-reaching investigations of domestic organizations based on relatively low levels of suspicion.

Second, and relatedly, these new proposed laws create a potential for abuse. Consider, for instance, the recent proposal to make it a federal terrorism crime to kill, assault, or destroy property with the intent “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “affect the conduct of a government.” Pitched as a modest proposal, such a law could actually convert a large number of ordinary crimes to federal terrorism offenses and ratchet up sentences. For instance, acts of violence designed to intimidate people, but with no political motive, could fall within the statute—as might attempts to threaten a judge in an individual child custody case in order to affect judicial conduct. Moreover, in light of federal agencies’ history of targeting civil rights activists and communities of color, there is no guarantee that federal agents would aim expanded charges at white nationalists, rather than Black Lives Matter members, indigenous rights activists protesting oil pipelines, or Muslims.

Third, government officials can properly stigmatize white supremacist violence as “terrorism” without adopting new charges. For instance, prosecutors labeled Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant, a potential “domestic terrorist,” even though they charged him with firearms and drug possession charges. Thus, government officials can extend the moral stigma of terrorism—often reserved for Muslims—to other perpetrators without new laws.

So what can the government do to address the threat of white nationalist violence? To start, the government has to monitor and assess a problem it has often ignored. Even now, the Justice Department only reports statistics on terrorism crimes with an international nexus, omitting attention to most U.S. terrorists while stoking fears of immigrants and Muslims. Law enforcement agencies must direct greater investigative attention and resources to the problem.  For example, the military must curb the participation of service members in extremist hate groups like Atomwaffen. In addition, social media platforms must counter online incitement far more effectively than they have so far.

But ultimately, any serious response to white nationalist violence must challenge the presidential rhetoric and policies that embolden its supporters. Trump’s tweets extending condolences to the people of New Zealand do nothing in the face of years of hateful statements and policies directed at Muslims and immigrants and the promotion of ideas of white “cultural threat,” popular among white nationalists. If members of Congress want to get serious about right-wing extremism, they should begin by defunding the Muslim travel ban and overturning Trump’s veto of national emergency powers to build a border wall. Rescinding racist policies and holding accountable the president who issues them will do more for the security of U.S. racial and religious communities than misguided attempts to create new terrorism laws.